June 23, 2007

Book Review: The Myths of Innovation

(Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.)

Late in his book, The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun quotes the inventor of the laser, who quipped that the laser was "a solution in search of a problem" (p. 144). I had the same thought as I read Berkun's interesting and engaging book. Berkun does a great job giving the reader an insight into the (somewhat squishy) concept of "innovation," and he skewers many of the myths that many of us hold on the subject. Yet, I kept wondering who this book was for and how the audience should react to the book.

I think some of the ambiguity I felt points back to the ambiguity around this word "innovation." Like the proverbial blind-men-touching-an-elephant story, "innovation" is a word that can mean different things to different people. Certainly, the image that first comes to mind is the scientist in a white coat, slaving away in the lab looking for the next big breakthrough in medicine, chemistry, or robotics. But that is a more limited view than what I think Berkun would say (although he is never very explicit on the subject). I think you'd be well advised to, for the purposes of this book, consider "innovation" to be synonymous with "change." I know I don't necessarily think of myself as an "innovator," but I do think a big part of my professional life is wrapped around getting people to change how they do their work (for the better, of course). Applying this definition makes this book seem broadly applicable. For, if your work life is at all interesting, you're likely engaged in producing new products or services, turning around a floundering organization, or pushing the boundaries of your field. (If you're keen on maintaining the status quo, this probably isn't the book for you.)

Berkun identifies ten "myths" to debunk. Heaven help the person who believes all ten of these myths, yet most of us will have bought into at least a couple of these at one time or another. The myths don't hold up well to scrutiny, as Berkun skewers them one-by-one (as outlined in the table of contents):

  • The myth of epiphany
  • We understand the history innovation
  • There is a method for innovation
  • People love new ideas
  • The lone inventor
  • Good ideas are hard to find
  • Your boos knows more about innovation than you
  • The best ideas win
  • Problems and solutions
  • Innovation is always good

In terms of content, there really isn't much to argue about here. I found myself nodding in agreement with pretty much everything he said. Stylistically, I'm a fan as well. Berkun is, as with most good communicators, a storyteller. The stories are one of the book's strong points, as Berkun is able to really drive home the point of each chapter with compelling examples. It also allows the reader to dive at random and not lose too much in the process. The stories also make the slim 150 page book a quick read.

I really enjoyed reading the book, but, as you've probably gathered, I finished it with a sense of unease. The book will likely be shelved in the "Business" section of your local bookstore or library, but it really doesn't fit there. One reads a business book (and I've read a fair number of them) looking for some take-away. Maybe the author is letting you in on the secret sauce behind a successful company, or learning about a new aspect of management or marketing. But I'm not sure I ended up with many take-aways from this book. Maybe it would help to treat this like many of the other non-fiction books I read. I read those simply because I'm interested in the world. You'd do well to approach Berkun's book with this same attitude; read it because he does a great job explaining how change happens, not because he's going to give you a point-by-point checklist to coming up with the next great theory of everything.